The European Enlightenment

Women: Communities, Economies, and Opportunities


      The status of women during the Enlightenment changed drastically; surprisingly, much of the talk concerning individual liberties, social welfare, economic liberty, and education did not greatly affect the unequal treatment of women. In many ways, the position of women seriously degraded during the Enlightenment. Economically, the rise of capitalism produced laws severely restricting women's rights to own property and run businesses. While Enlightenment thinkers were proposing economic freedom and enlightened monarchs were tearing barriers to production and trade, women were being forced out of a variety of businesses throughout Europe. In 1600, more than two-thirds of the businesses in London were owned and administered by women; by 1800, that number had shrunk to less than ten percent.

   While the Enlightenment greatly change the face of education, the education of women simultaneously expanded in opportunity but seriously degraded in quality. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, education was available only the wealthiest women, while education was available, in theory at least, to most men. But the education that women received was often fairly equivalent in content and quality to the best education available to men. The Enlightenment, however, stressed the absolute importance of education for moral development and the ideal operation of society. So education was extended to the women of the upper and middle classes; however, Enlightenment thinkers also believed that the various intellectual disciplines, such as science and philosophy, were meant only for men. These subjects, then, were closed off to women. Instead women were offered training in "accomplishments," that is, various skills that contribute to the moral development and the "display" quality of a wife: music, drawing, singing, painting, and so on. So while men were learning the new sciences and philosophies, all that was offered to women in education was decorative "accomplishments."

   The economies of pre-industrial Europe were primarily based on family economies; the individual household was the fundamental unit of economic production. Within this unit, most of the necessities of life were produced by members of the family. These family economies were, by and large, sustenance economies. In this environment, there was no place for individuals living outside of a family. If someone lived individually, they were regarded as a criminal or beggar or worse. For both men and women, then, there really was no alternative, socially or economically, to living outside of a family.

   Women began to function as productive laborers within this family economy at the age of six or seven (sometimes earlier). In agricultural communities, this meant, usually, light farm labor, and in an artisan's family, this meant taking part in the business itself. Women in artisan families were very often trained in the artisanal skills of the family; as they grew up, they became more vital and important to the functioning of the business. On the farm, however, women's labor was considerably less valued, and women almost always left home between the ages of eleven and fourteen to either work on another farm or become a servant in a household.

   Very few women could marry without a dowry. If a woman were part of a family, the family would usually make up the dowry. If she were on her own, which was the most typical fate of rural women, then she had to save enough money to pay her own dowry. This dowry went to the husband and was invested in the family economy, whether agricultural or artisanal. That is, the woman was required to invest in the household economy before she could join it.

   In general, women's lives were oriented around the eocnomy of the household rather than family. Both the marriage and the children took second place to production within the family economy—this was absolutely vital, for a bad year in the family economy almost always meant starvation.

   Nevertheless, the new urban economies of pre-industrial Europe created low-level, low wage jobs in various industries. For both men and women, this work was brutish, harsh, cruel, and actually paid less than sustenance wages. While most women stayed within the family economy, several displaced women found themselves as the central labor force of pre-industrial industries. In the illustration below by William Hogarth we see a hemp factory where women are beating hemp into ropes. The labor is obviously difficult and the shop steward of the factory can be seen hovering over the main character with a whip.

William Hogarth,
The Harlot's Progress


   We know little of women's communities for the general run of the European population. Women's lives, in general, consisted of unceasing labor. In the middle and upper classes, however, women's communities began to develop a new and revolutionary life. The works of the philosophes began to filter into women's communities and self-concepts; in fact, much of the activity of the philosophes were sponsored by women and women's communities. While women found that the presses were closed off to them, they still had an immense amount of influence over the currents and contents of the philosophe movement. A seed was being planted; women's communities were demanding a more central intellectual role in European life. This seed would blossom into the revolutionary feminist works at the end of the century: Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Olympe de Gouges' Declaration of the Rights of Women .

Richard Hooker



Next
Absolute Monarchy and Enlightened Absolutism




World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-20-98